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The Essentials: Luis Bunuel

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist March 19, 2013 at 3:51PM

Anti-establishment to the core and arguably one of the original enfante terrible filmmakers, Luis Bunuel had three preoccupations, no, obsessions that he charted for his entire career: religion, class and sexual desire. Labeled a surrealist early on his career due to "Un Chien Andalou," his famous collaboration with Salvador Dali (responsible for one of cinema's most famous images, of a razor blade slicing an eyeball, and made when the filmmaker was just 29) it would be extremely pat to reduce Bunuel's long and eclectic career to that idiosyncratic work. A blasphemous heretic to the church, several of Bunuel's films were flagrant censures of religion and the Catholic church, which saw him fleeing Spain more than once during his career.
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Tristana

“Tristana” (1970)
Quintessential Bunuel, “Tristana” is yet another picture about unrequited love and desire also featuring an obsessive and overprotective bourgeois father figure, a May–December romance and touches of surrealism (yes, he couldn’t get enough). It could even be said “Tristana” was a type of take two or spiritual sequel to “Viridana” given all its similarities, but this time the patriarch does not off himself, instead haunting his young concubine with his restless sexual overtures and desire for control and ownership. Catherine Deneuve stars once again as the titular orphaned youth entrusted into the guardianship of an older, well-respected, but impoverished nobleman (Fernando Rey). Since this is a Luis Bunuel film, the man naturally flips head over heels for her and she briefly even sexually acquiesces. But bored of this old man, she eventually leaves him for an artist closer to her age (spaghetti western and original “Django” star Franco Nero). Another critique of Catholicism and modern society with a few surrealistic flourishes, when Tristana falls ill and loses a leg, she would rather return to care of her former guardian – rich now thanks to an inheritance – and stay in that passionless relationship than endure the harsh realities of her circumstances, all the while calculating a deeper plot. Perhaps a minor work overall, or at least one of the lesser sex, control and desire films, “Tristana” is still beguiling and comically strange. 

The Discreet Charms Of The Bourgeoise
"The Discreet Charms Of The Bourgeoise" (1972)
Along with "Belle De Jour" and "Un Chien Andalou," "The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie" is one of Luis Bunuel's best known works, thanks to winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (and winning Bunuel and co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere another for Original Screenplay). And yet it's perhaps aged less well than anything else he's made; unlike other more timeless subjects of his satire, the mores and morality of the upper-middle-class sometimes feels likes shooting fish in a barrel, even if the filmmaking remains impeccable. The film revolves around six bourgeois friends, including Bunuel favorites Fernando Rey and Jean-Pierre Cassel (Vincent Cassel's father) as they continually try, and fail, to sit down for a meal together. From getting the wrong day, to the death of a restaurant owner, to a police raid, to the intervention of a ghost, the sextet are constantly thwarted, their hypocrisies (and perhaps more importantly, those of the audience) constantly put on show. The film is playful, both cinematically and comedically, and it's one of Bunuel's most purely enjoyable films, but can't help but feel like it's hitting low-hanging fruit, especially given the weightier themes that Bunuel had cast his satirical eye on before. That said, it's still a lot of fun, and an important and influential entry in his filmography, but it may not quite deserve to sit among the very, very best of the filmmaker's canon.

That Obscure Object of Desire
“That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977)
A wicked, devilish and surrealist look at the ravenousness of longing, lust and passion, Luis Buñuel’s “That Obscure Object of Desire” is his ultimate picture and arguably one of his best -- a culmination of a lifetime of obsessions rolled into one. Told in flashback and set against the backdrop of a terrorist insurgency in Spain, ‘Obscure Object’ centers on an aging Spanish man (Fernando Rey) who falls in love with and obsessively attempts to win the affections of an aloof, unattainable 19-year-old chambermaid. Played by two different women (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina), this unattainable beauty repeatedly frustrates this man’s romantic and sexual desires with a teasing back and forth that might drive any lover mad (indeed, sexual humiliation of the old and privileged seemed to be a central theme and one has to wonder in his old age if Bunuel was something of a masochist). Ostensibly a representation of the girl’s two disparate personalities (both Bouquet and Molina demonstrate two different types of behavior), it’s perhaps simply too facile to box in Buñuel like this, as the picture has its sly satirical elements and indictments of bourgeois society, as is per his usual. Buñuel's 30th and final picture, the film earned him two Oscar nominations (Best Foreign Language Film and Best Adapted Screenplay), capping off a terrific and provocative career.

There's even more to discover from Bunuel: 1960’s English language "The Young One" -- his second and last American film; "El (This Strange Passion)," another tale of a May/December romance and obsession; “Death in the Garden,” starring the beautiful Simone Signoret, about a motley crew group of travelers who flee to the jungle after a revolution breaks out in a South American mining town; the absurd and scathing vignettes/loosely linked comedic episodes of "The Phantom of Liberty"; and "Nazarín," about a priest who leaves his order and decides to go on a pilgrimage. Complete with the filmmaker's disdain for organized religion, the latter picture won the little-awarded “International Prize” at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959. - Rodrigo Perez, Oli Lyttelton, Diana Drumm 

This article is related to: Features, Luis Bunuel


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